From where I was standing, jammed up against the off-white acoustic tiles behind a smeared glass screen, Pete Thomas was just visible in the opposite booth. I counted off the tune and hit a few guitar chords over the beat distorting in my headphones. I was back in Pathway Studios, where my recording career had begun 15 years earlier. In the movie version of our lives, we would have been cutting a hit record. Unfortunately the song was a mess.
In the previous year I had learned to read and write musical notation, written and recorded The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, and toured the world with them in under 25 days. At the end of it all, my wife and I had written ten trashy pop songs in one weekend for a girl named Wendy. I'd enjoyed making demos of those songs so much that I got the notion that I should just keep on recording. The only thing I forgot to do was write any more songs.
The record I set out to make was to be called Idiophone. The Collins Dictionary defines this as an instrument "made of naturally sonorous material". It is a term used to describe a percussion instrument, but I couldn't see why it should not also refer to a singer. It was also comforting close to the word idiot. I'd written an instrumental piece that took this title, although it was little more than a series of squalls and clusters on the guitar and piano over a programmed bass line. I'd also written some music to perform at the W.B. Yeats Festival in Dublin that year, a rowdy setting of his poem "A Drunken Man's Praise of Sobriety". It was a song close to my heart.
The only other complete tunes that I thought suitable were an attempted collision between musical styles of The Rolling Stones and that of a minor Russian composer and a grim tale of men hiding in armed forces to evade responsibility to the teenage mothers that they had abandoned. In other words, absolutely pure pop music. The bare bones of these two tracks were laid down in a couple of takes, but the session came to an ugly halt with the attempt to record a half-finished piece called "Poisoned Letter". This barely focused rant about intolerance contained a pretty decent bass figure and number of good lines, but I could feel I was forcing the pace.
I had enlisted the help of Kevin Killen, who had engineered Spike and recorded and co-produced both Mighty Like A Rose and The Juliet Letters. The technical limitations of Pathway held no attraction for him, and once the session faltered we relocated to another North London venue: Church Studios, where we could attempt some more sophisticated recordings.
I continued to work under the Idiophone banner, laying down the instrumental parts of the title piece. My son, Matt, came in to play bass over a drum loop provided by Pete Thomas for another work-in-progress, entitled "Abandon Words". Although that song was actually about some of the more fashionable and idiotic aspects of self-censorship, the title accurately reflected my more drastic moods and intentions.
Although Pete Thomas and I had continued to work together since the apparent demise of The Attractions, my relationship with Steve Nieve and Bruce Thomas was pretty non- existent. In the intervening years, Steve had enjoyed a career as a television chat-show bandleader and contributed to a great number of recordings. Bruce Thomas had also worked occasionally as a session player and made a not entirely successful venture into the world of pulp fiction. After my attempt to reassemble the band for the recording of Mighty Like A Rose had ended in an unseemly legal squabble, I assumed that we had cut our last record together.
Having added the bass part to the guitar and drums performance of "Kinder Murder" before we left Pathway, I now started to overdub on the other backing track from that session: "20% Amnesia". This was a reference to the amount of the proposed tax bribe that had apparently swung the most recent U.K. election to keep the Tories in power. I used the large Church recording room as a bass echo chamber and also laid down a simple marimba line in the chorus. However, when we came to the piano part, I found it was quite beyond my capabilities. It was time to call in Steve Nieve.
I had composed a number of slow tempo songs that year but had put them to one side since most of my contributions to The Juliet Letters were ballads. I wanted to do something different. Now it was becoming obvious that I needed to reconsider this decision.
The mood at our first session together for a number of years was a little formal, but Steve played brilliantly. We cut good exploratory versions of "London's Brilliant Parade", "This is Hell", "Favourite Hour", and an early draft of "You tripped at every step". Most of the time the instrumentation consisted of just piano and drums, while I concentrated on singing. The takes featured on the second CD of this edition illustrate how quickly the arrangements started to develop.
Despite taking this more musical approach, I was still pushing for a much harsher sound, and Kevin Killen and I agreed that this was unsuited to his production style. My mood swings were also affecting the progress of the sessions, one minute I believed we were really making a record and the next I was in despair. I took the decision to live with all the material cut so far, while intending to write the balance of material needed for a full album.
I did not imagine that it would all happen quite so quickly when I purchased a second- hand sunburst Gibson 160E. Although this model would always be associated with John Lennon in my mind, people were now appearing on MTV balanced on the edge of a canyon or perched on some windswept mountain range while strumming the same model of guitar. I thought it was pretty safe to be seen playing one, as it was unlikely that I would be confused for anyone who might be photographed from a helicopter.
I began writing again using the Gibson, and in a single day I composed the outlines of "Rocking Horse Road", "Pony St.", "Clown Strike", "Still too soon to know", "13 Steps Lead Down", and "Just about glad". This was an unprecedented and slightly frightening burst of inspiration. To these I soon added "Sulky Girl" and "All the Rage", which adapted some of the lyrics from "Poisoned Letter". The discarded bass figure from that song became the foundation for another new tune, "My Science Fiction Twin". It was a satire about a man who does five things at once.
I called Nick Lowe and asked for his help. Not as a producer this time but as a bass player. We met in Pete Thomas' basement home studio, The Napoleon Rooms, and ran through all of the songs that I had written recently. Nick was great at threading a figure through a song like "Clown Strike", and we had "Pony St." and "Just about Glad" worked out in a couple of hours with the tapes rolling all the time (these takes can be heard on CD 2). However, when we looked at the ballads, Nick, who has always remained understated about his instrumental abilities, claimed that they simply contained "too many Norwegians" for his style of playing. In other words: too many damn chords.
I called in Mitchell Froom to co-produce the next sessions. He had played keyboards on both King of America and Spike and had joined Kevin Killen and me in producing Mighty Like A Rose. Now he arrived with his usual production partner, Tchad Blake. They favoured a quirkier sound created with arcane devices, lengths of metal pipe and a bizarre portable P.A. system that Tchad had dragged back from a trip to India, which he used to rebroadcast voices and instrumental sounds. They had also employed another bass player on their recent sessions for other artists. At their suggestion, I made the call to Bruce Thomas.
We had all the tracks with Nick Lowe on bass "in the can" before The Attractions assembled at Olympic Studios to attempt their first recording session in eight years. There was no doubting that Bruce's arrival gave us the right combination of musicians to rerecord some of the more complex songs. Though the atmosphere was cautious and respectful on the surface, the humour of these sessions was best captured by Bill Flanagan's Thurber-esque cartoon in which I was jokingly menaced by The Attractions wielding axes, swords, and a pair of large garden shears. Bill was the editor of Musician magazine at the time, and the tableaux was later re-created for a photo shoot, although I think the pen and ink version was actually closer to real life.
Putting aside any simmering grudges, The Attractions lineup made an excellent job of cutting "This is Hell", "London's Brilliant Parade", and "You tripped at every step" in a mere handful of takes. Two tracks that were later released as singles, "Sulky Girl" and "13 Steps Lead Down", were reminders that this could also be a pretty great rock and roll band.
When Brutal Youth was finally released, the record company made much of the return of The Attractions, and the album was tagged with that lame old cliché: "back to basics". These simplifications may have made for good ad copy and lazy journalism, but they were pretty inaccurate. Nick Lowe played bass on the majority of the tracks that were required to groove, and the two rawest cuts on the record, "Kinder Murder" and "20% Amnesia", dated from the first Pathway session when there had only been Pete Thomas and myself in the studio.
In time I came to regard the Idiophone / Brutal Youth sessions as a failure, simply because the little that was said about the album tended to focus on superficial appearances and the soap-opera mechanics of the recording, while totally ignoring the content.
So, what of the songs? Although so many of them had arrived in a rush--that is not to say that they were dashed off without any thought. I had filled many notebooks with snatches of lyrics that only took shape as the music revealed itself to me.
I had carried around fragments of the melody that opens "Pony St." for almost a year after it came to me during a stay in Italy. I had not even picked up a guitar or sat at the piano to work out any harmony. I was unsure whether it wouldn't be better suited to more experimental compositions that had made up my contributions to The Juliet Letters, but it ended up in a rock and roll song in which the daughter is the parent to the mother.
The Brutal Youth album contains at least four songs that could not have been written before the experience of working with the Brodsky Quartet. In fact, "Favourite Hour" was written in a deserted rehearsal room at Dartington Summer School where the Quartet and myself gave the second performance of The Juliet Letters just prior to taking the piece into the studio.
"London's Brilliant Parade" was another song that shared the musical ambition of The Juliet Letters. Lyrically, it was a more affectionate look at the city in which I was born than I could ever have managed when I was actually living there. I've never thought to use the term hometown, but there is a very personal route map in the final verse. Handing the song over for Steve Nieve to play meant that it could be realised beyond my extreme limitations at the piano. Adding the rhythm section brought it closer to the darker domestic ballads, "You tripped at every step" and "Still too soon to know".
"This is Hell" was an attempt to continue the fantasy afterlife theme of "God's Comic" from Spike and "Damnation's Cellar" from The Juliet Letters. Of the two versions contained in this edition I think I now favour the more spontaneous take from the Church Studios session. I hope the song justifies its existence with the notion that "in hell" you can hear Richard Rodgers' "My Favourite Things", but it is always performed by Julie Andrews and never by John Coltrane.
"Favourite Hour" was about the terrible anticipation of a dread event. Although Steve played it very grandly, with drum accompaniment, on the version heard on CD 2, I was determined to rerecord it with a live vocal and piano performance of my own in order to concentrate the attention totally on the melody. I believe it is among the very best songs that I have been fortunate enough to write. Whether it should have received a more expansive treatment is something that I will leave to the listener or for another performer to resolve.
The details in the other songs were collected during periods of travel. "13 Steps Lead Down" refers to that number being used to instill dread in those entering the Tomb of the Spanish Kings at El Escorial. Not that the song continues much with that theme--it was more for those who could not subscribe to the new fashion of sobriety.
I found the real "Rocking Horse Road" in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was one of those lovely suburban neighbourhoods that was, at once, utterly benign and filled with reminders of a claustrophobic life from which a career in music and emotional cowardice once offered an escape. "You tripped at every step" was a candid reminiscence of what occurs when that exit is not taken. "My Science Fiction Twin" was about a fantasy life that I was lucky to avoid.
As the album was mixed and assembled at Sound Factory Studios in Hollywood, it seemed that there was some sort of thread running through these songs. However, I could not pretend that I had planned this in advance. The preceding story of these sessions would make nonsense of that conceit.
The title, Brutal Youth, was suggested by a friend after he heard "Favourite Hour", musically, the gentlest song on the record. The phrase was extracted from the line: "Now, there's a tragic waste of brutal youth". The cover art, with its childhood snapshots, confirms that this title was intended humorously rather than with any sense of intimidation. The only song contained in this edition that is about youths that are brutal is "Life Shrinks". This was originally recorded for the soundtrack to the movie War of the Buttons but was removed from the final cut after a contractual dispute. It was later issued as a B-side.
The other songs contained on CD 2 are either the studio demos and experiments from the Napoleon Rooms, Pathway, and Church Studios or fuzzy 4-track home demos that were cut just after the songs were completed.
The record IS backward looking, but I do not mean that in a musical sense. I had spent the previous nine years exploring other ways to play songs, and in the 12 months prior to recording this album, I had learned how to write songs of a completely different shape and feeling. Now came the question of whether there was still a loud song worth singing.
So, if this record does look back, it is with affection and amusement to disastrous and bungled affairs of "Just about glad", "Clown Strike", and "My Science Fiction Twin" or with the regret and remorse of "You tripped at every step" and "Rocking Horse Road".
There are also outward looking songs longing for a vanished place and time in "London's Brilliant Parade" and "Favourite Hour" and those looking on with dread and loathing for the way things appear in "Kinder Murder" and "20% Amnesia".
I started out to make something violent and undone in the wake of the most disciplined work of my career. After several false starts, I managed to get from the incoherent insults of "Poisoned Letter" to "All the Rage", full of bravado and a sense of fallibility —
"So don't try to touch my heart
It's darker than you think
And don't try to read my mind
Because it's full of disappearing ink"
If this record ended up just a little closer to the truth than these things sometimes get, it was almost by accident. What do you want? This isn't confession. This is pop music. I found myself playing in a rock and roll band again. If this did not require forgiveness, then it did assume some small understanding of anger and when to let it go.
— Elvis Costello